This is Your Brain on a Digital Detox

Changing up the ways we interact with tech can bring a new mindfulness to the relationship and your life.

Our relationship with technology is not always a healthy one, studies show. Social media promotes narcissism while also increasing feelings of social isolation and depression; our smartphones are keeping us from sleep and sex, and all that screen time is making kids less empathetic.

So what would a digital detox accomplish? Would it undo all the damage?

It depends upon your relationship with the tech. Technology isn't inherently bad, it's a tool. Some studies have found complete withdrawal from social media can lead to boredom, feelings of social pressure, and fear. Life might feel less funny and more lonely if a digital detox means giving up the group text that is pretty sure to make you laugh every single day.

On the other hand, many of us know our relationships with our phone isn't a model for a health. "While technology helps us in many ways, being constantly connected can have a negative impact on both physical and mental health," says Lynn Bufka, PhD, the American Psychological Association's associate executive director for practice research and policy.

Many of us long for a digital detox but don't know how to accomplish one. In the APA's Stress in America survey, 65 percent of Americans describe a "digital detox" or temporarily unplugging from digital devices as a good way to preserve mental health, but only 28 percent have actually done it. It may be that a cold turkey digital detox isn't for everyone. Some smartphone users might be eager to embrace a more sustainable solution, like digital minimalism. At the very least, changing up the ways we interact with tech can bring a new mindfulness to the relationship. Ready to kick your bedtime scrolling habit? Here's what else is in store.

You'll sleep better

The blue light from our phones suppresses melatonin in our bodies and makes us more alert. Not good news when you're trying to doze off. In fact, studies show that people who check their phone before going to sleep don't get high-quality rest. Tuck the phone away in a drawer two hours — or at least one hour — before bed for more restful sleep.

You're more productive

"Digital minimalists in their professional lives get a lot more done," Cal Newport, associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University, author of Digital Minimalism, and the so-called Marie Kondo of digital life told Ladders. "When people minimize their digital life they find it much easier to stay focused on what they're working on, and they sort of also have more cognitive energy to put toward important projects, versus the trivial." In other words, when you turn off those Instagram alerts, you'll find you can much more easily meet your deadlines. Magical, right?

You'll notice the "small" things

When the company, Kovert, sent 35 CEOs, entrepreneurs, and other influencers to Morocco without their phones, the company also sent along surveillance. Five undercover neuroscientists observed behavioral changes on this desert digital detox. They found that people were more likely to remember details about one another, even obscure ones, like the name of a distant relative mentioned in passing. When we're more present in conversations, the neuroscientists reasoned, our brains more readily process and store new information. These "seemingly insignificant" details don't register in a tech-driven state of distraction, but they're essential to forming bonds and connecting with others.

Your quality of attention improves

Sustained concentration is cognitively more valuable, Newport says. "We're severely undervaluing concentration and severely overvaluing convenience and flexibility of communication," he said. The research shows that when you're deeply concentrating — say, writing short story — and you switch your attention to something else, like checking your Ebay bid on a pair of Isabel Marant boots, your attention pays a price even when you return to the short story.

"There's a cost to that shift and creates an effect called context residue," he said. "It reduces your cognitive performance and it takes a while for it to clear out." If you're quick-checking your email inbox or your Slack messages every ten to fifteen minutes, you're keeping yourself in a constant state of attention residue. "So while most workers don't realize it, they're working at this reduced cognitive ability. So we place ourselves into a cognitive state in which we're much worse at working and we don't think we're doing it, we don't even realize it's going on."

You boost creativity

Our phones help us feel optimized and busy, plugged in and productive. While that may be helpful for firing off a return email to your boss while standing in line at the grocery store, constant engagement won't get you closer to your next groundbreaking idea. When it comes to creative solutions and breakthroughs, boredom is essential, argues Manoush Zomorodi in her book Bored and Brilliant. When we're bored, our body goes into autopilot mode and allows our brain to fire in new ways. That's when we connect disparate ideas and solve some of our most nagging problems.

You gain new perspectives on your life

Looking up — rather than staring down into your phone — doesn't just improve your posture, it gives you a better perspective. Time offline can lead to significant life changes, the neuroscientists on the Kovert digital detox observed. Without distractions, participants found they had the freedom to contemplate the most important issues in their lives. As a result, many decided to make changes in their career, relationships, and health. This was born out in Zomorodi's research as well.

"We do something called 'autobiographical planning,' she says in her TED talk on the topic. "This is when we look back at our lives, we take note of the big moments, we create a personal narrative, and then we set goals and we figure out what steps we need to take to reach them."

That may be the most compelling reason of all to step away from our phones. "It's about living with intention," says Dan Silvestre. "You make room — space and time — for the things you love and eliminate everything that distracts us from them."